Ed Hirsch
Ed Hirsch

New JWV commander to participate in Detroit’s Veterans Day parade.

Timing is everything. On Monday, Oct. 29, I left a dental check-up and drove to a second dental appointment; this time with retired dentist, Dr. Edward “Ed” Hirsch, 83, of Farmington Hills. I was meeting him for lunch in advance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, to prepare this article about his distinguished 27-year military career.

I met him initially in June, just after his appointment as the new Commander of the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) Department of Michigan. He succeeded Larry Berry, an Army captain in the Vietnam era, who served with great distinction as commander for five years.

“I was an Army officer first, who also happened to be a dentist.” That was the humble way Col. Edward Hirsch, D.D.S., described his service to his country. While he would use his profession in the Army, the leadership skills he exhibited so impressed his superior officers that he was often assigned responsibilities away from the dental chair. Ed received dangerous counterinsurgency and intelligence assignments, details of which he’s not permitted to share to this day.

During a tour of duty in Vietnam with Special Forces in 1970, Ed caught the attention of the commander of military operations and future Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who reassigned him as a team leader in Special Operations.

During that same tour of duty,  Ed would be on the receiving end of his third battle-related injury when, on an airboat in South Vietnam, he took a hit from a RPG (rocket propelled grenade). A traumatic leg injury landed him in Walter Reed Hospital for 9½ months and earned him his third Purple Heart.

Ed was introduced to service to one’s country at a young age. Born in Jersey City, N.J., Ed’s father, the son of Lewis and Fannie Hirsch, served during both WWI and WWII as an aviation mechanic and member of the Coast Guard.

1958 would be a pivotal year for Ed. He married Shirley, 82, now his bride of 60 years, after his first year of dental school at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. The couple celebrated their milestone anniversary June 15.

“My future mother-in-law, Rae Levine, a wonderful woman, introduced me to her daughter Shirley while attending Rosh Hashanah services in 1956,” Ed said. It turns out Shirley was literally the girl next door. “I was renting a room in the house directly next to hers.”

Ed Hirsch in Vietnam on July 15, 1970, the day he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade
Ed Hirsch in Vietnam on July 15, 1970, the day he was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

Distinguished Army Career

While working toward his dental degree, Ed applied for and received a commission in the Army Reserves. Liking what the service offered him “to fall back on if dentistry didn’t work out,” he joined with the knowledge he would be subject to active duty.

In 1961, he was activated and, with his dental degree in tow, the newlyweds found themselves at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where Ed was assigned to the Army Medical Department to begin basic training.

By spring of 1962, while stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, he applied for a regular Army commission. He stuck with that decision despite having faced anti-Semitism during his interview. Ed recalled how an officer asked him, “Why does a Jew boy want to make the Army a career?”

Eventually, the Hirsch’s two children would be born 9½ years apart during two assignments at Fort Hood. Today, Deborah is a mechanical engineer in Wisconsin; Daniel, who retired as a full colonel in Air Defense Artillery, is a defense contractor in Washington, D.C.

Early in their marriage, Shirley volunteered with the Red Cross, applying the med-tech background she received from West Virginia University. In the early 1970s, she was Chief of Army Community Services while her husband was stationed in Hawaii.

His skills led Ed to became part of the Army’s elite Special Forces, more popularly known as the Green Berets, which included jump school training and tours of duties with airborne groups from North Carolina to the Panama Canal Zone and Vietnam. “There’s not many meshuggenah dentists that would jump out of perfectly good airplanes … 129 jumps to be exact,” Ed said.

At  JWV meeting: Larry Berry, past commander, Ed Hirsch, Art Fishman
At JWV meeting: Larry Berry, past commander, Ed Hirsch, Art Fishman Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

The “dentist” was even asked to assist surgeons in removing  shrapnel. That happened on his very first night in Vietnam on the grounds of a Special Forces unit. “There was only one surgeon in our unit, and he called upon my ability and dexterity with my hands to help in the procedures,” Ed said.

Not once did Ed mention any honors he received. I’m glad I asked. He was awarded his aforementioned Purple Hearts, plus the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and the Air Medal, among his 26 military awards and decorations.

Next to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross is our nation’s highest honor, given to those who have “displayed valor in the face of the enemy, often courageously facing overwhelming odds with devotion, especially to their fellow soldiers.”

After retiring from the Army in 1986, Ed joined a practice outside Chicago, but academia came calling. In 1988, he accepted an assistant professorship in the Department of General Dentistry at the University of Detroit School of Dentistry. Three months later, he became the associate dean of its clinical program.

Before retiring from dentistry in 2002, Ed served as the chief of dentistry at the Detroit Medical Center and as executive director of the Detroit Dental Society.

In retirement, he remains active with military organizations, including in 2017 being appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund Board of Directors, which helps veterans with temporary financial hardships. “I thank Edward for his service on this board as well as his commitment to ensuring veterans and their families receive the assistance they need,” Snyder said.

In his role as JWV commander, Ed knows he has a battle of a different kind to face. “We are fighting a war of attrition,” he said. “Our membership is aging, but I’m committed to do everything in my power to maintain the rich legacy that is our state’s JWV department for generations to come.”

Part of that commitment includes remaining a visible part of community celebrations. To that end, this Sunday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., Commander Hirsch and the JWV will proudly participate in this year’s Detroit Veterans Day Parade originating from Cass Park across from Masonic Temple. This year’s parade and ceremonies will commemorate the original Armistice Day — the 100th year anniversary of the end of WWI.

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